20 Questions With: The Jerry Cans
You may be able to take The Jerry Cans out of Iqaluit, but you will never (ever) be able to take Iqaluit out of The Jerry Cans.
For those of you who don’t know, The Jerry Cans may just be the hottest thing out of Nunavut these days. Known regionally for their trademark mix of Inuktitut and English, the band has recently burst onto the international music scene and garnered critical praise for their latest album — all while challenging mainstream stereotypes, mashing traditional genres and launching a shiny new record label. Combining everything from folk and country to reggae and throat-singing, their sound – and their message – is true to their roots and refreshingly unique.
Whether they’re singing about seal hunting, politics, domestic abuse or anything in between, The Jerry Cans offer an authentic glimpse of life in Canada’s North while tackling some of society’s most universal issues. And despite the band’s reflections on weightier topics, they manage to remain optimistic and send a positive message with their original brand of upbeat, get-out-your-seat-and-jump-around music.
Recently, vocalist/guitarist Andrew Morrison was generous enough to take some time out of the band’s busy touring schedule for an interview with DD. Here’s what he had to say about culture, community and more.
Who are The Jerry Cans?
Andrew Morrison (guitar and vocals), Nancy Mike (accordion and throat singing), Steve RIgby (drums), Brendan Doherty (bass) and Gina Burgess (fiddle and violin). We also have a few wonderful throat singers that join us from time to time, including Rita Claire Mike-Muphy, Pia Churchill, Avery Keenainak, and Kathleen Merritt.
When did The Jerry Cans form?
The band had a few different formations over the years, but really took form when Nancy and Gina joined the band. We used to play lots of English rock/punk rock music but decided to start writing music in Inuktitut, about things we saw in our communities. It was really a game changer for us. Then adding the throat singing was another key move with Nancy.
Some people may not know that Nancy is the only Inuk member of the band. Why was it important to the rest of the band to “adopt” the language and culture?
For me, it’s much bigger than the band. Nancy and I have two daughters together and her late father insisted that I learn Inuktitut and learn how to hunt. It was never overt, but now Nancy and I talk and laugh about how he would wake me up at 5 a.m. to go seal hunting, or always make fun of me when I spoke English. We now realize he was making sure that his future granddaughters would have every opportunity to learn Inuktitut and be brought up in their culture. I guess the band is one expression of this.
Who are some of your musical influences (collectively and individually)?
We love dance music, whether it’s accordion jigs, Kendrick Lamar or Lady Gaga. We love to dance, and we always love when the DJ goes onstage right after us to start the dance party.
How would you describe your sound?
We play Inuktitut roots music. We love Iqaluit, and feel like our sound reflects the town. There are so many different music styles here, and since it’s such a small music scene we all grew up jamming together. Whether it’s musicians from Jamaica bringing reggae rhythms, Celtic tunes from Newfoundland, or traditional forms like throat singing, there’s a lot of different influences here.
What are some common misconceptions about life in the Far North?
There are too many to name.
What is your favourite thing about Iqaluit?
Iqaluit still has a very strong sense of community. That said, we remember the days when you would recognize everyone. There are a lot more new people today, people who may not have the same understanding of the importance of community values.
Tell us about your first gig as a group.
The first time we sang in Inuktitut was hilarious. I was so nervous and tentative, and the crowd was also super tentative, but by the end of the song (I was singing Mamaqtuq, a song about seal hunting) both the crowd and the band had a moment of figuring out how to react before bursting out in laughter and applause. I don’t think any of us knew how to react right away (laughs).
Artists like yourselves, Kelly Fraser and Digawolf have gotten some attention for singing in your traditional languages (along with English). Are there any other Indigenous-language artists our audience should be aware of?
There are so so many. Northern Haze is one of the most legendary bands in Canada. Charlie Adams, Uvagut Band, Etulu and Susa Aningmiuq, Simon Sigjariaq. To me, these are some of the most hardcore musicians out there. Their music is difficult to access but we are working with our new record label to get some of these tunes to be more easily accessed.
Is there ever any pressure within the industry to switch over to English only? And do you think you would have more mainstream success if you did?
Yes, absolutely. We all realize that our careers would be very different if we sang in English. We understand the reasons for that, but it doesn’t mean we necessarily have to accept it. We will continue to push to prove that there’s a market for Inuktitut music and the stories behind the music. That said, we never want to limit ourselves. We are always evolving and don’t rule out singing in English. Like I said before: we want to reflect life in Nunavut but also want to challenge some of the stereotypes associated with the North. If singing in English helps accomplish that, I wouldn’t rule it out in the future.
Why is preserving Inuktitut so important to you? And do you think music offers unique opportunities that more traditional communication methods (like written communication and storytelling) may not?
Inuktitut is a beautiful language that is facing increasing pressure from the wave of English. I speak Inuktitut to my daughters, and that is really important to me. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I want to make sure I give them every opportunity to live bilingually. Nancy and I work really hard to do this and I always go back to what my late father-in-law would want. He would want them to be fluent, so I have to do everything in my power to honour that.
It’s a big part of our music, as I think a lot of young people want to have access to modern music in their first language.
Tell us a bit about your touring schedule. How much of the year is spent on the road, and where have you been lately?
We are spending more and more time on the road these days (their current tour takes them from Scotland to Cuba to Canada to Australia). It’s challenging because it keeps us away from our community, and our community is really at the root of our music. That said, we’re glad to be playing a part in a larger movement of educating the world about Nunavut. It’s not easy by any means, but we think it’s really important.
What has the response to your music been internationally?
We still run into some pretty funny reactions to seal hunting and stuff like that. Things won’t change overnight, but we will still happily be proud to hunt and eat country food.
Best gig you ever played?
Hmmmm. Tough question. The Iqaluit Legion is the most legendary venue in Canada in our humble opinion (laughs).
Highlight of your career so far?
One of the most special moments we often think about is when we sang in Alaska and an elderly Indigenous woman came up to Nancy in tears. She was so proud to see young people passionately singing in an Indigenous language.That was very powerful.
If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
Good question! Probably Johnny Cash for me. The other band members might have different answers.
You’ve spoken a lot about your hope and encouragement for youth in your community. What are some of the unique challenges facing our Northern youth? And – having been in their shoes and achieved the type of success you have – what advice would you give them?
This is a very complicated question. We never claim to have the answers, and of course, because of colonization, growing up as a white dude in Nunavut my experience was very different.
I do think part of the challenge for youth is constantly being told that Southern ways of doing things are cooler and superior. Whether it’s how you speak, how you dress, how you relate to each other, it often conflicts with more traditional values up here. Youth up here are constantly being told that they are insufficient, not good enough, and that they need to adopt Southern/white ways of doing things to be successful. We try to challenge this big time.
We don’t claim to have solutions, but I know living up here, being a part of the community and talking about these things that raising our kids to speak Inuktitut, love their land and love themselves is an important part of a very complex puzzle. There are lots of little revolutions taking place all the time up here; it’s important to remember that in this increasingly challenging world.
You mentioned your new record label. Tell us a bit more about Aakuluk Music.
Aakuluk Music is an organization we started to help support Inuit and Inuktitut singing artists. We had lots of trouble trying to get our feet in doors with Inuktitut music, and we constantly feel the pressure of singing in English. We also want to challenge this. I always tell this story, but at our most recent album release party we had loads of young Inuktitut artists singing their hearts out in their Indigenous language. If we were to tell them about our experience trying to make a career in music industry singing in Inuktitut, it would be way more difficult. We strongly feel this needs to change, so we started Aakuluk Music to help these musicians get some industry support. It’s lots of work, but there are some very, very cool developments going on right now.
In the same sentence I want to deeply thank everyone who has helped us along the way. There are some really great passionate people within the music industry that realize change is needed and we can’t thank them enough. We have a bunch of amazing releases coming out, and we have some big announcements at the beginning of March.
What do you guys do when you’re not touring or making music?
I’m sitting here in my parka, about to go seal hunting. I’m overheating, but using my few days off to go enjoy a gorgeous day in Nunavut. Come visit and we can do the next interview waiting by a seal hole. (DD: Yes, please!)
What does 2017 have in store for The Jerry Cans?
We are so excited for this year! With the label, and tours nationally and internationally, we hope to have the whole world singing Inuktitut music!